Any suggestion that the autonomy of universities, the independence of academics and the freedom to challenge the views of others is at risk will rightly cause upset and concern on campuses.
It is not exactly clear why Chris Heaton-Harris MP has written to vice-chancellors to ask them about course content that deals with “the teaching of European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit”. If he had explained the nature of his interest, he would have cut out lots of debate and suspicion over his motives.
Protecting free speech is a priority for universities. We have well-developed policies for protecting the rights of academics, students and members of the wider community to free speech on campus.
At a time when it is difficult to sort real news from fake, it is critical that universities remain places where different viewpoints – including those that are controversial or offensive – can be challenged and discussed. Universities are about broadening people’s experiences and knowledge, not limiting them by shutting down legitimate topics for debate.
In fact, by exposing our students to different opinions and challenging ideas, we educate graduates who have the skills and critical intelligence to robustly but respectfully challenge those with whom they disagree.
Academics are not using lecture halls or seminars to promote their personal opinions, on Brexit or other issues. Discussing Brexit, and thinking about the impact of the decision to leave the European Union, are legitimate topics for consideration in many subject areas.
Academic freedom is enshrined in law. Section 202 of the 1988 Education Reform Act ensures that academic staff are at liberty to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions.
There is, however, a difficult balancing act: universities have a duty under Prevent to tackle violent extremism and to protect the safety of students and staff, but they also have a clear legal requirement to secure freedom of speech within the law on campus. Universities are hugely experienced in this area, and independent reports show that they are following the statutory guidance and have their own protocols in place.
I believe that universities are getting it about right and that our graduates will participate in wider society as engaged and tolerant citizens. Evidence shows that graduates are more likely to vote, to volunteer and generally to display more tolerant attitudes.
It is interesting that this story has emerged just after the government warned that universities could face censure by the new Office for Students if they fail to uphold their duty to secure free speech. Students were urged to accept the legitimacy of healthy and vigorous debate. Today’s developments indicate possible attempts to curtail these long-standing legal obligations and freedoms cherished by universities.
We are not contesting the right for an individual to make a Freedom of Information request or to ask about what is taught in our universities or who teaches it. Indeed, this information is usually publicly available in staff profiles on university websites and through their research.
However, many of Universities UK’s members are concerned about the lack of clarity of intent from the MP making the request, and UUK will be writing to Chris Heaton-Harris to ask for an explanation.
The higher education sector will continue to do what it has done for centuries: provide a place where free speech and academic freedom flourish. This means protecting independence in academic study, ensuring that academics are free from political interference, and providing students with opportunities to hear and challenge a diverse range of views.
Janet Beer is president of UUK and vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool.